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Golf’s Changing Narrative

Among the developments in golf over the past year-and-a-half or so, the evolving narrative surrounding the game has been particularly interesting to follow. More specifically, recent, non-endemic media coverage about golf and the golf business has been overwhelmingly positive.

It was just a few years ago when most headlines – among those who don’t cover the sport regularly – focused mostly on doom-and-gloom: the number of U.S. courses dropping due to closures outweighing new openings, total on-course participants down from the all-time high, and perceptions that younger generations were straying from golf and some private clubs and golf communities were struggling. Some publications went so far as to posit questions such as “Is Golf Dying?” because, let’s face it, negativity frequently moves the needle.

 

The negativity that built around the game has receded, and the pandemic has unquestionably played a role.

Outlets like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Bloomberg, USA Today, CNN, Yahoo!, NBC News and Esquire have published stories detailing golf’s strong momentum and widespread success as one of the nation’s leading outdoor participation sports: increased play, a rise in participation, a record influx of beginners and returning golfers, strong equipment and apparel sales, membership surges at private clubs, the mental and physical benefits of the game, homeowners seeking out golf communities, the appeal of golf destinations as an escape, experiential and environmental advances, and more.

 

Golf’s generational reach has been celebrated as a way for families to connect outdoors while disconnecting – at least temporarily — from technology and the outside world.

There will always be stories about golf course land being sold off and giving way to development, but a slowdown in closures could further minimize some news negativity. The 31% decline in 18HEQ course closures in 2020 was the largest drop on record and that’s going down further in 2021. What’s often misunderstood is that golf course closures aren’t a proxy for the health of the game. Not unlike restaurants, golf course businesses shut down for a wide variety of reasons and the spatial footprint of golf (approximately 150 acres for an average 18-hole course) is particularly appealing from a real estate perspective, leading some owners and operators to sell off the land amid a strong market.

While golf remains a popular target for the occasional scathing opinion piece, the lion’s share of recent coverage from those who don’t regularly write about the industry has been decidedly positive.

That some of the nation’s highest-profile athletes are passionate about the game doesn’t hurt golf’s narrative either: Steph Curry, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have all been profiled in major golf publications or played in visible charity events. Artists and actors from Macklemore to Murray (Bill) have received favorable press for golf apparel lines that give weekend warriors new ways to express themselves on the fairways and greens.

NGF has said in the past that storytelling would be one way to change attitudes and impressions of golf.

And consumer research shows that opinions have been improving. Consider that today almost 60% of non-golfers have neutral or positive things to say about the game. By comparison, eight years ago, that proportion was 43%. Yes, golf has the attention of a lot of people right now, and this presents the opportunity to create impressions by celebrating the game’s many positives.

These changes are swells, not waves. They take time to build, then recede.

The positive narrative surrounding golf isn’t likely to go away immediately. And there’s much to celebrate in and around the game as the industry seeks to answer the question of whether the current higher levels of demand and interest can be sustained.

Author
National Golf Foundation
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